Community issues for 2014

January 5, 2014 

A new year has arrived, bringing with it a new consolidated Macon-Bibb County government. For many years, consolidation was one of the top issues we explored each January. Now that our consolidated government is all but five days old, it’s only fitting that the new government remains on our top issues list for a host of different reasons.

We are stepping into unknown territory, and there will be a number of bumps in the road for the new government. Its success or failure won’t be known for some time, but there are a few realities the citizenry should expect. The new government will not solve all the issues facing the county. Many of those longstanding problems can’t be solved by government. The responsibility for fixing those gnashing-of-the-teeth issues lies with everyone.

The new government is expected to hold the line on spending. In fact, it’s supposed to reduce the cost of government by 20 percent before the end of the decade. Let us say up front that reducing the budget by 5 percent per year, starting with the 2016 budget is a pipe dream. Can it happen? Sure, but assuming public safety is untouchable, the resulting cuts in other departments would create more than a panic. Three years from now, we would be looking for nine new commissioners and a new mayor.

Attrition will help keep the budget in line as will the income produced countywide through various franchise fees, but it won’t nearly be enough. It will take some time to work out contracts with the various entities, and the same will be true of right-sizing personnel. We should expect to see the public safety budget increase significantly. In the fire department, two new fire houses will have to be staffed.

In the sheriff’s office, we cannot have the untenable situation of two officers of the same rank in the same car being paid differently. Fixing the inequalities between the two forces, now one, will cost big money. Fortunately, the legislation, House Bill 1171, gives the new government a get-out-of-budget-cuts card if an increase is due to public safety.

We would hope that the collegiality that was present at most county commission meetings will carry over to the new government. If the new government takes the time to be transparent with the issues it must now deal with, some of the rancor of past Macon City Council meetings will dissipate. Lesson to residents: Be patient.The International City enters into a new phase with the election of Mayor Randy Toms. The area faces a number of challenges internally. Robins Air Force Base is its highest concern, and Toms and the council will have to navigate how the city can be a great partner.

There are several areas, from recreation to transit, that will make Warner Robins competitive in the next round of base closings. Toms and council members will need help awakening a sleeping public to the necessities of some infrastructure improvements. The city must address personnel issues in the police department. Officers are being asked to put in overtime hours due to a shortage of officers. It’s not a big number, but if the situation is allowed to fester, crime statistics are sure to rise.The future of Robins Air Force Base is up in the air (no pun intended). The largest industrial complex in the state is under fire as are all military installations. The question faced is not if an expense reduction initiative hits the military, but when, and that when is pretty soon.

The military is trying to downsize after an expansion to deal with Iraq and Afghanistan. The Air Force will be particularly affected. The fleet is old. Many of the pilots are flying aircraft that are older than they are. The venerable B-52 has been flying for almost 60 years. The C-5 has been in the air for 43 years. When the Pentagon mothballs planes, the workforce to maintain a smaller Air Force also shrinks.

It is imperative that the entire region embrace Robins with the goal in mind not to lose missions or the base entirely, but to help the base increase its missions by being the most efficient in the Air Force and the other military branches.

Robins is going into this fight with less political pull than before. U.S. Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., is retiring and U.S. Rep. Austin Scott, R-Ga., is only in his second term. He will have to lean on U.S. Rep. Sanford Bishop, D-Ga., and U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga. Bishop successfully created a strategy for Fort Benning, but the other Air Force centers have powerful political backers, too.The Middle Georgia area has more than a few success stories to tell about attracting industry. The opening of the almost 1 million-square-foot Tractor Supply distribution center is the latest example of what can be accomplished when an area has a lot of undeveloped land with transportation access and plenty of water.

The new year brings challenges of attracting and bringing to the area good-paying jobs. Houston County is particularly challenged. While it has Robins Air Force Base, the cities in the county rely too much on property taxes. Having a few nice hits in the industrial development area would not hurt. What will help attract good paying jobs is our next issue of 2014.No matter what issues are put on the table, the one that has come up too many times, particularly for Bibb County, is education. The Bibb County Board of Education has a tough year ahead. Interim Superintendent Steve Smith has made it clear that his time is winding down. The board has to move the process of finding the right superintendent to its highest priority.

Some good strides have been made, and while the Macon Miracle hasn’t lived up to its name, the graduation rates have climbed and the system was reaccredited. The board and this community have to find a leader who has not only the right credentials but also the right touch. Some have suggested there are educators within the system who are perfectly capable of filling a superintendent’s role. We encourage those who have the demonstrated abilities to apply for the job.

There will be other challenges right out of the box for the Bibb board. If projections are correct, the system will have more infrastructure than it needs. That means some schools will be closed and their populations merged with other schools. This board, led by Wanda West, will be charged with two of the most difficult tasks a school board is charged to do: Find a superintendent and redistrict attendance zones while closing schools. Those decisions need to come before the school year ends. Bibb is not the only school district wrestling with the right mix of schools. Houston County and other Middle Georgia systems also are trying to find the right mix when it comes to infrastructure and student populations.

As always, most school boards in the area also will have to deal with austerity cuts. Last year, Bibb County was cut by more than $14 million. Legislators will gather in Atlanta for the 2014 session to decide what the formula will be this time around, but if people are holding their breath waiting to see if the austerity cuts will disappear, that’s probably not going to happen.There is no argument that crime statistics and poverty are joined at the hip. The more poverty, the more crime, and Macon-Bibb County has more than its share of both. The new combined sheriff’s office will have to come up with strategies to lower an embarrassingly high crime rate. While tabulations and comparisons of the crime rate in Macon-Bibb vary, one thing is sure: They all rank Macon as having one of the highest crime rates in the country.

The way to attack crime is to attack poverty. The One Macon initiative and its many partners are trying to affect the entire community -- from education, jobs and places. Promise Neighborhoods, now under the United Way umbrella, will bring a variety of service providers to bear on systemic problems of poverty in the Promise Neighborhood zone. If successful, the effort can be cloned in other areas of high poverty.As the various Middle Georgia governments and chambers of commerce come together to defend Robins, we are hopeful the effort will spawn a new era of cooperation between cities and counties.

Regionalism is something that’s talked about a lot, but it is too easy for various parties to drop back into their silos once a threat has abated.

In reality the threat of not having a regional approach to attracting industry and good jobs is the constant enemy. When the Department of Defense looks at Robins, its gaze doesn’t stop at the Houston County line. Rather, it’s looking at all the statistics for the entire region. As the Clean Air Coalition has proven, communities can and do work together for the common good, but other communities across the nation are out luring industries, too, and communities that work together are more successful than those that don’t. With Bibb’s consolidation, it jumps to the fourth-largest city in the state behind Atlanta, Columbus and Augusta. A unified effort across the Middle Georgia area could pay huge dividends. First we have to rid ourselves of the provincialism that has ruled the day in a number of different areas of Middle Georgia life.Highways and byways always create controversy. In Houston County, it’s the traffic issues of an ever-growing city. In Macon-Bibb, it’s the Interstate 16/Interstate 75 junction, and every city in Middle Georgia has something that needs to be done with its roads.

Middle Georgia is blessed to have a solid transportation infrastructure. The interstates run through us, and Brosnan Yard is one of the largest switching stations in the Southeast. There is a move afoot to allow counties, individually and collectively, to tax themselves to pay for road improvements -- a sort of local T-SPLOST. Since the T-SPLOST went up in smoke, leaders have been trying to figure out how to get the needed work accomplished.As mentioned earlier, taking care of the environment is not something one government can take on by itself. A regional approach is the only way to go. It’s imperative that work continues to make sure our air is clean, not just because of economic impact of being in non-attainment, which would put a dagger into our chances of additional missions at Robins Air Force Base, but also for the health of Middle Georgia’s residents.

We have significant challenges. Georgia Power operates one of the world’s largest coal-fired power plants in Monroe County. The company has poured more than $1 billion into techniques to make the air coming out of its smoke stacks cleaner. Interstate 75 is one of the nation’s busiest, and Brosnan Yards, while an economic engine, also produces its share of pollution. Add to that the possibility of air quality standards being more stringent.

So far, the Clean Air Coalition has spearheaded the progress made on the air quality front and its work should continue. All of Middle Georgia’s governments -- from municipalities to school systems -- are looking at adjusting their fleets to natural gas. There also is a push to develop more sites where electric vehicles can be recharged.

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